Fontinalis investment could bring lidar costs down

Ian Thibodeau
The Detroit News

Correction: This article has been corrected to accurately report Fontinalis Founder Chris Thomas’ former position at Ford Motor Co.

Fontinalis Partners LLC, the venture capital firm Bill Ford Jr. co-founded, is part of a group investing in a San Francisco-based company that says it can cut the cost of mass-produced hardware that self-driving cars use to “see” the world around them.

The lidar sensor company Ouster will get $27 million in financing from the group to gear up to increase production. Cox Enterprises, an Atlanta-based conglomerate, contributed most to the financing, according to a news release from Fontinalis. Ouster caught the companies’ attention because the founders say they’re able to produce a high-performance lidar sensor roughly five times cheaper than any other manufacturer.

That’s important, because lidar — which stands for light detection and ranging — will be a crucial piece of how most autonomous vehicles perceive the road. The sensor bounces lasers off surroundings so the vehicle can see what’s around it. It’s typically one component of a suite of sensors on an autonomous vehicle, and it’s sometimes the primary device in those vision systems.

Ford Motor Co.’s autonomous test vehicles use multiple lidar sensors, as do General Motors Co.’s and most of the autonomous shuttle systems that have recently tested in Michigan. Those developing the self-driving systems have said they can’t work without lidar.

But lidar sensors are currently one of the most expensive sensors used for autonomous vehicles. Bringing the cost down could speed-up the development of those systems throughout the industry as they become more affordable.

That’s the goal, according to Raffi Mardirosian, Ouster’s vice president of corporate development. The company spent over two years redesigning lidar sensors to find a way to build them more easily and efficiently. Ouster is currently selling to automotive companies and suppliers, he said, though he could not specify which companies.

“Our ambition is to have an impact in the AV (autonomous vehicle) space,” Mardirosian said. “We’re open to selling to any company.”

He called the investment from Cox and Fontinalis a vote of confidence. And having the Ford name associated with your company — Bill Ford’s son, Will Ford, is also an analyst at Fontinalis — “definitely helps,” said Mardirosian. Fontinalis Partners is not affiliated with Ford Motor Co.

The chance to work with Fontinalis Founder Chris Thomas, who was a summer intern in Ford’s sustainability business development and treasury groups before starting Fontinalis, is also important to Ouster’s growth. The venture capital firm has become a leading investor in mobility and transportation start-ups, Mardirosian said.

David Blau, vice president of corporate strategy and investments at Cox, will join Ouster’s board.

San Jose-based Velodyne currently supplies lidar sensors to Ford, GM, Uber and most other companies that are developing autonomous vehicles.

GM said last month it would be able to slash the cost of its next-generation lidar in half to $10,000 because of in-house development at Cruise Automation, the automaker’s San Francisco-based self-driving arm. Cruise acquired lidar company Strobe Inc. in October.

Also in October, Argo AI — the Ford-funded company that is helping build the automaker’s driving system — announced it acquired lidar company Princeton Lightwave to speed up production.

“We can’t talk about a future of self-driving cars without mentioning lidar technology — and we won’t be able to build that future without it,” Bryan Salesky, Argo AI CEO, wrote in a blog post then. “These sensors are crucial to creating a three-dimensional view of the world that helps autonomous vehicles find where they are on the road and detect other vehicles, pedestrians and cyclists.”

The first round of funding for Ouster will be used to manufacture its sensors and develop the next redesign. The company said it anticipates making tens of thousands of sensors in 2018.

The California company employs 40 people and expects that to grow to 100 by next summer.

Twitter: @Ian_Thibodeau